By now, most of us have added the name Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to a list that includes Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, and Jeremiah Wright, filing the summer’s events away as one more incident of racial tension. On July 16, Gates, a prominent black scholar, was arrested outside his own home in Cambridge, MA, by James Crowley, a white police officer. After ever-calm President Barack Obama condemned the arrest in a press conference, the incident grew into an intense nationwide debate about race. But treating the Gates incident as just another episode in the long conversation about race in America misses the point: The issue had more to do with civil liberties than racism.
Shortly after 9/11, President George W. Bush signed into law the infamous Patriot Act, which allowed government agencies to step outside the bounds of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in order to better protect Americans. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, echoing the words of most supporters of the bill, justified the violations and the need for the Patriot Act because it “provided law enforcement and intelligence agencies with basic tools needed to fight and win the war against terrorism.” In other words, security was more important than liberty.
Officer James Crowley—and a large part of America—defended the arrest of Gates on grounds similar to the ones used by Hatch to defend the Patriot Act. While he may have infringed upon Gates’s freedoms, Crowley was allowed to do so because he protects Americans. On that July day, he went into Gates’s home to protect Gates and his property from what Crowley thought might be an instance of burglary. Again, security over liberty. Rather than racism, the Gates arrest exemplified the Bushian line of “ends-justify-the-means” civil liberties violations that have defined the country for a decade.
The harsh and candid response from Obama, a strong opponent of the Patriot Act, originated from his objections to this kind of justification for civil liberty violations. Though race undoubtedly factored into his thinking, it was ostensibly not the main reason for his abhorrence. Obama made it clear from the beginning that his concern lay with Crowley’s “overreaction in pulling Professor Gates from his home.” In this moment of brutal honesty, Obama chose to highlight the event’s civil liberties violation rather than its possible racism.
As a result, the Cambridge Police demanded an apology from Obama until it became clear, in their words, that Obama “respects police officers and the often difficult and dangerous situations [officers] face on a daily basis.” The officers felt insulted because Obama had questioned their methods, not because Obama had called them racist. Critics like Glenn Beck, who took from Obama’s comments that he was a racist with a “deep-seated hatred for white people,” missed the point. What they failed to understand was that Obama’s anger was not directed at the perceived racism behind the arrest. Rather, the President lost his famous cool because the breach of liberty was far more disconcerting than the possibly racist attitude of one individual.
Indeed, it is not much of a stretch to imagine that the Gates arrest challenged the fundamental view of America that sustains and drives Obama. He has based his entire political career on the idea and hope that a meritocratic America would overlook his (or anyone’s) atypical background in favor of his abilities. What keeps him going is the belief—or, it seems, delusion—that he lives in a liberal society in which every person and idea is treated equally. Without this liberal fantasy motivating him, Obama would not have accomplished as much.
Describing this view in his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama speaks of a set of “ideals at the core of the American experience…that bind us together despite our differences.” These liberal ideals, enumerated in the Bill of Rights, lie at the foundation of the American democracy. Because of them, Obama had convinced himself, perhaps naïvely, that the same America that elected him its leader wouldn’t arrest an innocent man. But after a decade of erosion, culminating in Henry Louis Gates’ arrest, Obama must come to grips with the fact that these ideals are no longer intact.
The Gates arrest was the limit for “No Drama Obama.” He could not react to a Dubya-style violation of civil liberties and keep his cool: “The Cambridge police acted stupidly,” he said. And he was right. The police arrested a man who hadn’t committed any crime for bogus reasons (as the dropped charges prove). Race notwithstanding, what bothered Obama was that a police officer felt—and legally was—entitled to arrest an innocent man. Indeed, that Crowley could arrest Gates is more important than the fact that he did.
As Obama feared, Gates’ arrest revealed something greater about American society as a whole. At the end of a decade noted for its violations of civil liberties, Americans face serious questions about the state of their liberal democracy. Questions that transcend administrations and, more importantly, race.
William G. Nomikos is an M.A. student in international relations.